Fine dining, wine tastings, world-class hotels, meticulously planned rides on beautiful roads, a perfectly tuned bike, and constant support from the friendliest people you’ve ever met. If this doesn’t sound like your definition of adventure, maybe it’s time to reconsider.Trek Travel, which last year was voted as one the world’s best tour operators by Travel + Leisure, offers guided cycling tours in Europe, Latin America, Asia Pacific, the United States, Cuba, and more. We traveled to Southern California’s vineyard-rich Santa Barbara County for the four-day Ride Camp, and it turned out to be exactly what Trek Travel promised it would be—the cycling vacation of a lifetime.
Here in Solvang, California, travelers gather from around the world to wine, dine, and admire the Danish-style replica architecture. Throughout the town of 5,000 year-round residents, buildings feature thatched wooden rooftops and streets are adorned with Danish pastry shops, windmills, and even a 1/3-scale reproduction of Copenhagen’s Round Tower. To many, this is the charm of “The Danish Capital of America.” But for cyclists, Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley are also known as home to stages of the Tour of California and some of the country’s finest riding roads. The region is a cycling mecca for amateurs and pros alike, and a fitting home for Trek Travel’s Ride Camp.
Day 1 – If these roads could talk…
At the pre-ride meeting on Day 1, the hotel conference room has been transformed. Lunches are packaged neatly on a table in the corner, beside a cooler filled with Perrier and ice. Bikes line the far wall, neatly arranged in order of size for the arriving guests. Saddle heights have been adjusted to exact specifications and each Shimano Di2-equipped bike has been meticulously tuned. Highlighter ink traces a winding network of back roads on a map pinned to poster board at the end of a long wooden table. The squiggly yellow lines are a symbol of something more to come—stunning scenery, challenging rides, and new friends. This is Ride Camp in January. Though open to non-riders, it’s a trip Trek Travel designed for active cyclists and one used by many to get a jump on early season fitness. The first day is a leg-opener on the 2009 Tour of California time trial course. It’s a chance to work out any last minute bike-adjustments with the guides, and an indicator of what’s to come. These are roads steeped in cycling lore, raced by some of the world’s best. Golden light on green vineyards, rolling hills, and not a car in sight except the Trek Travel support van, stocked with fresh water bottles, nutrition, and spare wheels. It’s a far cry from riding the trainer in the basement.
Day 2 – Your ride is what you make it
At the pre-ride meeting the next morning, guides Matt Pourbaix and Chelsea Murray take us through the day’s route, which they’ve pre-loaded on Garmins for us. It takes the group out of Solvang via Ballard Canyon to some of Santa Barbara’s most famous vineyards. At just under 50 miles, it’s the first long ride of the trip. Any apprehension about the distance is quickly quelled by Matt, who says simply and emphatically, “You’re going to love it!” A Trek Travel trip is whatever you want it to be. This is a point stressed by the guides. You’re there for the experience you want, and the guides are there to help you get it. “Anything you can think of,” Chelsea says repeatedly, “don’t hesitate to ask.” And she means it. For both Matt and Chelsea, and for every Trek Travel guide, it’s entirely possible that “no” isn’t part of their vocabulary. Each day, one guide rides among the group and the other drives the support van. The guides are in constant communication. “That van is there for you guys,” Chelsea explains. “Let us know, and we’ll make it happen.” Riding with this kind of support, it turns out, is something extraordinary. For all the enjoyment of cycling at home, it takes effort to plan a ride, choose appropriate apparel, and carry everything you’ll need to confront any mechanicals you’ll encounter. Simply put, even the best rides require tedious preparation that can feel like a chore. Trek Travel takes worry out of the equation so that you can fully immerse yourself in the adventure of the ride. Perhaps best of all, to ride these roads with Trek Travel is to imagine what it must be like for the pros in races like the Tour of California and even the Tour de France. Support is always at hand, and that lets you engage with the experience in a way that’s typically reserved only for the most elite riders. Part way through the day’s route, the group splits as a number of riders stop off at local vineyard for a mid-ride wine-tasting. This is wine country, after all. “You’re going to love it,” Matt had said that morning. And he was absolutely right.
Day 3 – The Jalama Beach Challenge
Anyone can visit, and even ride, in beautiful places. But the guides make a Trek Travel trip something more. It takes a certain personality to shine in this role. Guides are culled from an enormous application pool, in a hiring process that ranks among the most competitive in the country. Matt Pourbaix, who spends his time away from work living and fishing (not necessarily in that order) in Miami and Puerto Rico, explains that some might have found the months-long hiring process intimidating. He found it intense but motivating. One of his interviews landed on Super Bowl Sunday, and another on Valentine’s Day. Coincidence? He doesn’t think so. There are a lot of people with extraordinary patience and hospitality, but this job is for people who recognize the impact that a guide has and understand the responsibility of helping people build memories they’ll hold for the rest of their lives. It takes someone who loves people, and that’s not something you can fake. In the meantime, Trek Travel guides learn the ins and outs of every ride destination and share their secrets. Need to know where to find Solvang’s best aebleskiver? Matt’s your guy. Need to know what aebleskiver is? He’ll tell you that too (Danish for “pancake puff”). On the third day, the group follows Highway 1 out of Solvang toward the Pacific Coast for a gorgeous out-and-back ride through rolling vineyards and over the top of the long climb to Jalama Beach County Park, a world-renowned locale for surfing, sailing, and fossil-hunting, and home to the Jalama Beach Grill. “The Jalama Beach Challenge is like a rite of passage for Trek Travelers,” Matt explains. For all who dare, the contest is simple. One beer, one order of fries, and one Famous Jalama Burger. Then get to the top of the eight-mile, 1100-foot climb in under an hour. Many have attempted, few have triumphed. And though everyone in our group opted for the made-to-order sandwiches prepared by the guides that morning, the Jalama Beach Challenge will be there for the next tour, waiting for a brave soul to add their name to the list of legends.
Day 4 – Does it really have to end?
When it comes to adventure by bike, there’s certainly something special about self-reliance and the mystery of not knowing where the next turn will lead you. But there’s also something great about having adventure and returning to a comfortable bed come nightfall. And there’s something even better about that bed being in a world-class hotel, chosen by a guide with a passion for finding places you won’t ever forget. Our stay is abbreviated—several riders in the group are staying on to complete the full seven-day Ride Camp option—and we’re sorry to leave them early. They’ll go on to test themselves against the fabled Mt. Figeroa, the Queen Stage of the Ride Camp experience, where they’ll experience the stunning views of the Santa Ynez Valley and Channel Islands. In our short adventure, we have been transported—not just to one of the finest cycling locales in the country, but to a new state of mind. And that’s the greatest gift of a Trek Travel trip. As we return to our desks and our daily responsibilities, we have those winding roads, and vineyards, and the Southern California sunshine, knowing that a great escape is so much closer than we ever knew.